My UX writing process

I always say, “The less words you want, the more time I need. “ This gets to the heart of user experience (UX) writing: in order to be thoughtful and provide value to users, words need careful attention from the very beginning of the product development process. The spotlight is shining brightly on UX writing as an important specialist skill and I’d like to share a glimpse of my process as an integral part of a design team.

What is UX writing?
The practice of UX writing is crafting and owning the product narrative with the user as the protagonist. I put words in the interface including buttons, headings, menus, labels, error and confirmation messages, and more. Good UX writing should seamlessly guide users through tasks and give them confidence regarding the implications of their actions.

Companies and teams may define UX writing differently, depending on where design and product fit into their business strategy. Designers and writers work hand-in-hand and take an iterative, human-centered approach to provide users the best experience possible. Content informs design and design informs content. UX writing is design.

{More on UX writing here: “What is UX writing?” by Kristina Bjoran on UX Booth.}

What isn’t UX writing?
Oftentimes, UX writing is mistaken for copywriting, which is closer to the practice of producing messaging for marketing and advertising purposes. The content is driven by the product’s value propositions and is intended to capture a prospective customers’ attention.

Copywriters are brought into the conversation when designs and the strategic approach have been finalized. UX writing isn’t about filling in the blanks and proofreading for grammatical errors. UX writing is a proactive discipline that requires a seat at the table from the beginning of the process.

Step 1: Understand users and gather context
When I’m brought on to work on a new initiative, I want to understand who the users are and what problem they’re encountering. Design is a problem-solving discipline so it’s important to recognize what their needs are and why presenting a solution is valuable. I take a holistic approach to the work I do so some questions I ask myself are:

  • What led to this problem? What’s the context of their problem?
  • Why are they encountering this problem and what emotions are they experiencing?
  • How are they solving for this problem in the interim and how might I make it better?

In traditional storytelling, it’s the who, what, when, where, and why that drive the narrative arc. In an ideal world, the 5 Ws would be defined at the beginning of the process but I find that sometimes, they aren’t as crystal clear or can evolve over time. But that’s okay because users are people who go through changes. Recognizing that and being flexible is part of the job.

{Related: My writing process from start to finish, published on November 19, 2016. This piece is more about my blogging process but there are definitely parallels to my UX writing process.}

Step 2: Analyze and strategize
My commitment as a UX writer is to advocate for the user. But the reality is, design doesn’t exist in isolation. They exist within a bigger ecosystem of business strategy. For that reason, I like having conversations with stakeholders early on to understand their goals and how a possible solution fits into the bigger vision of the company’s growth. It’s especially valuable to learn how they define and measure success and gives me something tangible to work towards.

Designs are handed off to a development team to build so it’s also mandatory to learn about technical requirements up front. In addition, companies working in highly regulated industries have the added complexity of considering compliance and legal obligations. Working within such constraints present a conflict of interest of being transparent with users and protecting the company from harm. Striking a balance between the two requires a lot of different perspectives to be represented early in the process.

Housekeeping is an essential thing to address early on as well. I need to know what tools I’ll have at my disposal and anticipate resources I might need down the line with my design team. Getting a solid understanding of the scope of the project will impact the rest of my workflow. Since design relies heavily on user feedback and data, I make it a priority to leave buffer time when discussing timelines and product road maps just in case unexpected needs come up.

Step 3: Validate problems through research
A big part of design is validating users’ problems. There are many products out in the market that have failed to directly address real problems that users face and this is because their research efforts were insufficient. By this point, I have a good idea of who our users are and have aligned their goals with the business vision and strategy. This is the part of my process where I really delve into research.

Research should always be an integral part of the design process. There are many resources for me to tap into and I find myself looking through existing research to get the full picture. I also do competitive and comparative analyses to see how similar companies tackled the problem. If there are products out there that are addressing the issue I’m trying to solve, it’s definitely an indicator that I am working on a valid problem.

{For a thorough list of UX research methodologies, check this article out from UX Booth: “ Complete Beginner’s Guide to UX Research “}

Past and existing research gives me a lot of insights into assumptions about the user that may or may not be true. But people continue to evolve and face new challenges, which also presents a new set of assumptions. I list up as many as I can think of to keep my biases in check and invite my collaborators to do the same. The more assumptions I can keep at the top of mind, the better our future research efforts will be, leading to exceptional design.

Step 4: Ideate, ideate, ideate
My assumptions about the users are a great starting point for me to come up with ways I’d solve the problem. Content, like designs, start out as “sketches” or “low fidelity.” UX writing is an iterative process so I start by coming up with many ideas and refine as I move along. Designers don’t jump right into high-fidelity, pixel-perfect screens. Words are the same.

When I ideate, I always start with intent. Rather than asking myself the best way to say something, I address each user assumption and think about all the communication requirements. Business stakeholders typically have a set of requirements but I’ll create additional ones based on good UX principles and knowing the users’ emotional state of being.

In the early stages of content ideation, many words are superfluous. For this reason, I write a lot. A big misconception is that perfectly concise sentences are magically born. In reality, there’s just no way to start with concise content. My senior thesis was a solid 100+ pages before I narrowed it down to 60. It’s much easier to filter good ideas and UI copy when I start with a lot of words. I come up with a lot of bad content but failing often and failing early is valuable.

{Related: How to be a great writer, published on July 8, 2017. These are my tips on developing solid writing chops.}

Step 5: Explore ideas with designers
This is where it gets exciting (though I’d argue that the entire process is pretty exciting to me). By taking an intent-first approach, I’m able to work together with designers to build structure around the content and communication requirements. They’re able to share wisdom on how to use the interface to engage users and how they might logically follow through a flow.

This process of working with a bunch of scattered ideas and then adding structure with designers helps me prioritize messages that we might want to continue reinforcing during the experience, along with filtering out messages that aren’t as relevant. This can also help see what design can address so that words don’t even need to be there. What I don’t write is just as meaningful as what I do.

During this step I need representation from (but definitely not limited):

  • UX researchers: Design is based on feedback and data so researchers can provide insight on how users think and guide us. This is where they’ll start solidifying scenarios when bringing initial prototypes into testing based on the exploratory design work.
  • Business stakeholders: As UX professionals, our role is to help stakeholders bring their vision to life. Keeping them informed and involved in this process allows them to see what design can do and be better collaborative partners together.
  • Product managers: When design and content start taking shape, product folks are crucial in gathering more precise requirements around the initiative surface and can start planning ahead to get the product in build. (They also play great devil’s advocate!)

It’s best to start creating content in designs that leverage existing user mental models as to not shock them and have mismatching expectations. By doing so, I cut out a lot of content and eliminate long winded explanations. I work in scrappy mediums like white-boarding ideas and moving post-it notes around, which help us focus on exploring rather than marrying our ideas too early in the process.

Step 6: Test for usability and comprehension
Content needs to be tested just as much as design’s usability. Content’s value really comes out during testing because when testing with unfinished screens that only house placeholder copy (let’s vow to never use lorem ipsum for good, thanks) they tend to perform even more poorly. Content has nuances that can make or break the UX.

Testing will reveal exactly how people think. Listening to the way users talk about their problems and how they interact with prototypes of the design is super valuable, especially from a content standpoint because it’s best to mirror their language. It’s necessary to have a post-test debrief and working session to break down all the insights gathered from labs. Unpacking the user feedback is a huge part of what I do because it informs the content decisions I’ll make down the line.

{Related: Battling those voices of doubt as a writer, published on August 19, 2017}

Step 7: Iterate and polish
After I review and unpack user feedback, I’ll work with designers and flesh out the content. I consider the 4 C’s: concise, clear, conversational, consistent. One of the most important considerations is to speak like I would to a friend and be as conversational and human as I possibly can. Bad designs contain UI copy that is full of industry jargon and follows their internal structure, as opposed to mirroring users’ mental models.

Being concise is critical — every word should earn their spot on the screen. But there can be a conflict between being clear and being concise. People associate conciseness with using as little words as possible to communicate an idea but forget that when removing words, it should never sacrifice clarity. I get a lot of, “ just come up with a simple line of copy to address this issue and we’ll be set,” but they don’t realize the complexity and nuances of words and how the meaning can change when combined with other sentences.

Considerations when I polish content:

  • Did I solve the problem for the user? Is the user able to fulfill the task?
  • Can this text easily be translated into other languages? Is the design flexible enough to accommodate for languages with longer or shorter sentence structures?
  • Does the content follow good accessibility guidelines?
  • Is the content sustainable or are there aspects of it that will eventually make it stale?
  • Do I have content for all scenarios, including edge cases and zero states?
  • Does the language align with existing style guides and the brand voice?
  • Does it follow fundamental grammatical rules?

{ 16 Rules of Effective UX Writing by Nick Babich — Great resource of UX writing guidelines!}

Step 8: Finalize and deliver
If I had all the time in the world and the freedom, I could spend all day and all night working on content. There’s no limit on the iteration. But that world doesn’t exist. I have deadlines and technical constraints (among others) and new priorities so there will eventually be a time to let go of my perfectionist tendencies and let content do its thing when it’s released into the wild.

When it’s time to deliver, I do a final check for consistency and get very nitty-gritty about the language. I check for the appropriate place to use the ampersand symbol (&) or spell out the word “and.” I check for where I’m supposed to use title versus sentence capitalization. I make sure that numbers are used with numeric symbols where they need to be.

In summary
UX writing is extremely complex. Even though the name of the role includes the word writing, it’s actually a sliver of what I do. In order to produce the words on the screen, I have many conversations with people of differing perspectives and backgrounds. As an integral part of a design team, I need to think like a designer as I approach my work and consider business strategy and goals.

One of the challenges of being a UX writer, especially as a new emerging role in tech, is the constant demand to defend my discipline and advocate for the work I do because words affect users profoundly. Anyone can produce words to plug into designs and for that reason, it’s easy for me to lose credit and ownership of the value of what I do. But this is exactly what drives me to be a better UX writer and serve users.

Being part of a design team and doing what I love is extremely gratifying because words are fundamentally how humans connect to one another. I want people to feel confident and empowered with the tools I give them. My UX writing process, as it is now, isn’t perfect and I’m refining it as I become better. I’ve come to embrace my growth as an integral part of this process and will continue to develop as a storyteller.

Cheers,

Riri


Originally published at https://www.ririnagao.com on April 21, 2019.